11 Tips for Staying Safe When Living in Dangerous Countries

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In 1839 a British officer was involved in a diplomatic mission that required him to visit the Emir in an Afghanistan city. He proudly rode his horse through the city’s gates and was shocked when he was immediately arrested and thrown into the city’s dungeon.

What had he done wrong? He had broken a long-standing law that forbade any man or woman from riding their horse in the presence of the Emir. The British officer paid the ultimate price for his ignorance, several years later he was executed as a result of his flouting of the law.

If only that officer had taken the time to understand the inherent dangers of the country within which he was living and working and had walked through those gates instead of riding, he potentially would never have lost his life in such an unsavory manner.

As expatriates living overseas it is critical that you understand the lay of the land in your host country and this is especially true if you relocate to a country that has a reputation for being unsafe for foreigners. Here’s our guide to staying safe while all around there could be trouble.

1) Understand the politics.

Of course you don’t need an extensive politics qualification before you relocate to a potentially dangerous country, but you should, in the very least, have a good basic knowledge of the current political situation in the country and how it relates to your own nationality. Ensure that you are fully aware of any political faux pas that could land you in serious trouble and that you know what you can, and cannot talk about. If you are unsure, err on the side of caution and avoid talking about politics.

2) Understand the laws.

There are hundreds of stories out there that detail the trouble expatriates got into when, like the British officer in Afghanistan, they unwittingly broke the law. See, for example, our article on 6 Dubai laws you should never break. Once you are aware of the rules you will be expected to follow, make sure you stick rigidly to them; just because a law or regulation may not make any sense to you, does not mean that you have a right to ignore it.

3) Understand the local religious practices.

If there’s one thing that many people will not turn a blind eye to, it is an expatriate disrespecting their religion or culture. Ensure that you research the main religious that dominate the area in the world that you will be living and understand what is expected of foreigners. Never infringe upon or ridicule anyone’s religious beliefs and steer clear of any situations that could put you in an awkward situation because the behavior expected of you will conflict with your own religious beliefs or personal principles.

4) Don’t flaunt your wealth.

In some countries expatriates are extremely wealthy when compared with the local population and when this is coupled with a high crime rate, it can entail that expats are often the targets for theft. Don’t make the situation worse by wearing expensive clothing, jewelry and handbags and carrying your laptop, iPhone or iPod around with you everywhere. Carry small amounts of money and avoid pulling out a wad of notes to pay for a purchase. If you will be living in a country where you know there is a real threat of being robbed, ensure that you lock these things firmly out of site and try and lower the temptation.

At home, place any belongings that have a great deal of value to you in an unexpected place. Burglars are usually in a rush and will look in the obvious places for valuable goods. Separate your high-value items and hide them discretely in areas throughout your home. Yes, you may lose some of them during a robbery, but the more unusual the hiding places and the more disparate they are, the higher the chance that you will be left with some of your precious items.

5) Avoid drinking excessively.

There are two reasons why expatriates who are living in potentially dangerous countries should avoid getting inebriated. First, you need to keep your wits about you. If you are living in a country where the local people pose a serious threat to you because of high crime rates or a well-documented dislike for foreigners, then you need to ensure that you are fully compos mentis at all times.

Second, if your host country has a particularly fragile political or religious situation, it really is not a good idea to get drunk in public. Even in countries like Dubai, where there are places where expatriates are permitted to drink, you should never allow yourself to drink to the point at which you lose control of your behavior. You will not be the first expatriate who has ended up in serious trouble as a result of one two many glasses of champagne.

6) Use your common sense.

Surviving life in a country that has a reputation for being dangerous for foreigners often involves basic common sense. If there is a curfew, make sure you stick to it. If a fellow expatriate warns you about an area in the city, take their advice and stay away from it. Never draw attention to yourself and never think that you know better.

7) Watch what you do with your hands.

Try and avoid any type of hand gesture unless you explicitly know what it means in the country within which you’re living. Hand gestures that are completely innocent to you, may be highly offensive in a foreign country and, if this country happens to be one that is potentially dangerous, you really do not want to offend anyone. Take the “Okay” sign that many westerners form with their thumb and forefinger as an example. In countries like Brazil this is highly vulgar and producing this sign in front of someone may really insult them. This is something that you really do not want to do in countries like Brazil.

See our article on innocent hand gestures that can land you in trouble overseas, for more information.

8) Be unpredictable and don’t look like an easy target.

If you know that there is a high risk of robbery, muggings, or worse, in your host country, try and vary your routine and stick to busy areas. If you are suspicious that you are being watched or followed, go to the nearest public place, such as a bar or hotel, and ask them to phone you a taxi so that you can travel home safely. Try and avoid going out alone. Always be conscious of who is watching you and try and avoid looking vulnerable, you do not want to be seen as an easy target. People who commit crimes are taking risks and you need to give them the impression that taking you on will not be easy. Try and look confident and bold and a would-be assailant may just decide to wait for an easier target.

9) Be careful who you trust.

If you are living in a country that is known for kidnapping threats, or high cases of robbery and beatings and a stranger approaches you and wants to speak to you it really is best to ignore them and go on your way. Although you may risk offending someone who is completely innocent, in some countries it just isn’t worth the risk. Unfortunately you should also be weary of children. Children who have been raised in lawless societies may not be the sweet and innocent bundles of joy that you are accustomed to at home. Many of them will have faced serious hardship and will have been raised to be hardened criminals. While this is extremely sad, it is a fact, and a group of children can be just as dangerous as the gangs of adults you are programmed to avoid. Although it’s probably very hard for you to do, if you are living a country with high crime rates you should avoid getting into any type of conversation with any children.

10) Be weary of taxis.

If possible always order a taxi from a well-respected company. Try and avoid getting in random taxis on the street and never, ever, get into the vehicle of an unlicensed tout. If the taxi driver has a “friend” or companion sitting in the taxi then do not get into it. If you are unsure, stick to public transport but try and avoid traveling alone.

11) If in doubt, get out.

If, for any reason, you are in a place or situation where you feel uncomfortable, just get straight out of there. Trust your instincts and err on the side of caution. If you are wrong, there is no harm done; but, if you are right to feel on edge and you ignore your feelings, the outcome could be disastrous.

Are you an expatriate living in a “dangerous country”. How do you deal with the day-to-day risks that life in your host country presents. Do you have any insights you can share? Please leave a comment below and share your tips?

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